Cultural Differences Between North and South Korea

Visitors bowing in a show of respect for North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Mansudae (Mansu Hill) in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Ken Eom escaped North Korea in 2010 after spending ten years as a soldier in the North Korean army. He now serves as a special ambassador for Teach North Korean Refugees.  When he first arrived in South Korea, he had to get used to a lot of questions like

"Is there alcohol in North Korea?"

"If people were so malnourished, and couldn't get rice, why didn't they just eat ramen?"

The cultural chasm between the north and south made it difficult at first for Ken to assimilate.  His experience is not unique.  As political efforts are made towards the possibility of unification, many are asking how to navigate the cultural differences that exist between the two Koreas.

Eom's school, Teach North Korean Refugees (TKNR), is in Seoul's western Mapo district. The nonprofit provides free English language instruction for North Korean defectors.  Many North Korean defectors assume that fluency in Korean will be sufficient to find work in South Korea.  However, South Koreans use English on a regular basis in the work place, and basic knowledge of English is important for finding a job.  Founded in 2013, TNKR has helped hundreds of North Koreans learn English.

Travis Jeppesen, author of "See You Again in Pyongyang" says, "[There needs to be] an acknowledgment of the vast differences that have emerged in the two societies since the division began in 1945, and a willingness to work together to overcome them."

Sokeel Park, the director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, a defector assistance group, says that for many refugees, "transitioning from North Korea to South Korea, especially if you're from a provincial town in North Korea, is like coming out of a time machine into the future."

The South Korean government currently provides North Korean defectors with $6,450 in the first year, as well as vocational and other training. This is supplemented by NGOs, who spend thousands of dollars helping each refugee. Even then many North Koreans in South Korea struggle to get employment and live close to the poverty line.

If integrating North Koreans into South Korean society one at a time is hard, the task of full reunification seems much more challenging. Some estimates of the cost of reunification to South Korea range from around $500 billion to several trillion dollars.

While many South Koreans welcome better relations between the two countries, enduring hostility to the Kim regime remains among the community of defectors living in the South.


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